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Coming together to act like a community

Renegade Theater Company founder Mike Durkin hosts community sharing sessions to discuss events in Kensington

Left, lifelong community resident, Dennis Payne, Renegade founder, Mike Durkin, and Renegade staff, Cat Ramirez, Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and Doug Greene at the community sharing session on Thursday, July 20. LINDSEY NOLEN / STAR PHOTO

By Lindsey Nolen

Growing up with a father who was a blue-collar construction worker and an alcoholic, Mike Durkin, the artistic director and founder of the Renegade Theatre Company, recently found himself visiting bars throughout Kensington and Port Richmond because they served as a reminder of his dad. Through conversations with neighborhood “barflies,” he observed a sense of strength and vibrancy within the River Wards, and, in-turn, came up with the idea to work with community members to create a performance that is truly representative of life here.
“My company is committed to working with community members to develop the play, and we want to hold multiple opportunities for those [members] to share their experiences, stories and perspectives on issues of substance abuse and daily living,” Durkin, who founded Renegade Theatre Company in 2009, said. “My company takes personal stake in what’s presently happening in the neighborhood and city, and that is driven by the past and future.”
In discovering the ways members of the community perceive this area of Philly having changed over the years, and to discuss the changes they wish to see in the 10 years to come, Durkin has organized a series of community engagement opportunities. Beginning with a community sharing session that was held on Thursday, July 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kensington Storefront, located at 2774 Kensington Ave., Durkin has made it his goal to exemplify through his performance “that the neighborhood is more than the pre-written, media-infused ‘hellscape’ that currently exists.”
“The aim for the community sharing session was to share common goals with the neighborhood on quality of life and what is occurring right now, as well as to understand the experience of living in Kensington,” Durkin said. “This [is] the first in a series of workshops aimed at community building and experience sharing.”
At the community sharing session, roughly 10 community residents and influencers gathered to share their thoughts on what makes Kensington unique from other wards and cities throughout the country. A distinguishing characteristic many noted was that, despite a changing demographic over the years, Kensington has and continues to embody a connectedness among neighbors.
“There’s a viable spirit still here in Kensington,” lifelong resident Dennis Payne said. “There’s a close weave of community and a lot of people who are deep-rooted here, and forever they’ve been making sure each other got what they need.”
Durkin further explained through the session that, while his company has done a number of productions throughout Philadelphia, including a “Animal Farm to Table” piece that was set at a North Philadelphia farm and which explored food culture and access in the neighborhood, this spin-off production of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” will be its first full-immersion performance in the neighborhood. Additionally, it will be his first time working with residents to create and perform the show.
“As we’re working on this piece we’re trying not to playwright. We’re not trying to create new stuff, but take the existing stuff and weave it together,” Durkin explained. “We want the community to tell us things that they would like to see in the performance, like what characters they would like to see highlighted.”
Although this is a community-driven project focusing on issues of community living and effects stemming from issues such as substance abuse, the idea for it first arose simply out of Durkin’s curiosity in regard to the River Wards, and his desire to create a work which addresses the issues he had observed firsthand. Named “The Olde Man and the Delaware River,” his show will be composed of a blend of performers and residents, and will consist of a walking tour from the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny avenues, walking east to the Delaware River.
Continuing to host engagement opportunities into the fall months, Durkin, the lead artist on “The Olde Man and the Delaware River” project, who is also spearheading the artistic and community social practice intersections, will be holding subsequent workshops that will focus on acting and performing all with a community building component. He explained the ideal participant for these events includes anyone who feels they want to have a stake in the community, already are invested in the neighborhood or who simply have a desire to share their story.
“All are welcome no matter the situation they are in,” Durkin said.
The final performance of “The Olde Man and the Delaware River” is set to take place from Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, and will be shown throughout the Port Richmond neighborhood and leading to the Delaware River. With questions about the performance, or for more information, contact Durkin at: mddurkin@gmail.com.

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